I received a lot of very thoughtful responses to a column I wrote Aug. 22 on reading Ayn Rand (click here if you'd like to read it). In it, I said I wasn't sure true altruism even exists. "As long as we get any measure of satisfaction from the act of giving, we can’t let other people consider us 'good' because of it. This remains a riddle for me, but I relished ruminating on whether I could fit my own views inside Rand’s: See, altruism is selfish, it is in my own self-interest, because in giving, I get."
With permission, I'm sharing an email I received from Scott Mettler, a commercial property manager in Raleigh. I love his "Platinum Rule." See what you think.
I agree that students should have every opportunity to explore new ways of thinking, and if a contribution, or promotion, from a pro-Randian society affords such an opportunity, then I certainly would not oppose it. I think that our society has become so polarized that we are often too afraid to open our minds and "seek first to understand," as Covey puts it, those philosophies which we may not personally endorse.
As for altruism, I approach it from a different angle. Rand has reasoned this through with great detail, but she fails to fully understand the interdependent and impermanent nature of reality. She sees the individual as the potential for pure essence - the individual is indeed godlike to Rand, a priori, and remains so, provided that he or she steadfastly maintains the integrity of thought and action based on self-interest.
As you described in your article, however, we may all question the nature of self-interest. I like to think of Rand's ideal individual as being like a perfectly balanced chemical formula, made of elements available to all, but constructed only with proper care, determination and concentration. Any action that does not purposefully maintain the balance will dilute the formula and render it useless, in terms of its potential. A single sell-out of one's values takes one from Hero to Zero in an instant. That is why her heroes always maintain their values regardless of the consequences. The individual attains true purpose in safeguarding the formula from the detractors and "dilutors" of the world.
What some may call "selfishness" is nothing less than survival to Rand. Mr. Crabs can't help out his old pal Plankton by giving him the secret formula, because then the Chum Bucket would be the same as the (now diluted) Krusty Krab, and then the show would be purposeless and boring! I can understand why she would think this way. Her philosophy is an extreme reaction to an extreme experience in Russia.
If one views self and others not as distinct forms with individual essences, however, but as interdependent composites that are constantly changing, then one may understand that altruism does not exist even in the Randian sense. Altruism always involves dilution of the one for the benefit of the other. In an interdependent and impermanent reality, however, the true essence of the one and that of the other cannot be defined from one moment to the next - because they are in constant flux, and thus pure, undiluted essence really does not exist in anyone! It's like the old saying that you can never step into the same river twice, because the water is always flowing.
In this reality, from the moment we are born we are like animated stacks of Legos - continually being stacked up in the early years, and taken apart in the later years. What defines me and everyone else (and everything else) is that we are all made of the same Legos that are constantly being passed from stack to stack in order to keep the animation going. We are not the same "self" that we used to be years ago - and our definition of "self" can change in an instant, depending on circumstances over which we have no control. Since we all share the same fate and the same basic nature - then "Altruism" is meaningless.
If I give a homeless person $100,000, then he can rent an apartment, buy a car and start to rebuild his life. I will have $100,000 less, which may or may not impact me a great deal, depending on my income. The end result is that the homeless person will die without any money at all, and I will die without any money at all. We all do, just like Steve Jobs did, and Bill Gates will.
But if giving the money allows the homeless person to suffer less, even for a short while, it is worth doing because I am keeping his "Lego stack" animated, and the Lego stack that I call "Me" is animated by this as well. Altruism is replaced by "Compassion." The Golden Rule is a good example of classic altruism - "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Self-interest and quid pro quo.
I prefer the Platinum Rule - "What you do unto others, you automatically do unto yourself." Instant Karma. The problem most of us have is that we value the Legos themselves rather than the animation of the stacks. We think that adding more Legos to the stack will prevent the stack from being dismantled, but really it only makes the animation more difficult. Once the animation stops, the Legos come apart, regardless of how many there are. The key is finding a reasonable balance between the components of the stack and the animation - or between the physical part of reality and the spiritual part.
Rand's protagonists always seemed spartan, cold and on edge. I think it is because their sole aim is to defend their individual essence and their integrity. They are constantly on watch, point-men for their own sense of existence. Rand felt no sympathy for unsuccessful and unambitious people, not because she was cruel, but because she understood that they had sold out their individual essence in pursuit of pleasurable distractions and the avoidance of pain - in a way, they didn't really exist as true humans!
Death comes to mock her philosophy in the end, however, because the individual essence is ultimately dismantled and life becomes an exercise in futility. It's kind of like watching a kid trying to catch and keep a soap bubble. Rand would not argue that our physical existence is limited in time, and if our individuality is tied to our fleeting existence, like a soap bubble in time, then we should not let the bubble get popped - defend the bubble at all costs, because anything that is not the bubble will surely pop it. Only other "bubble natures" should be allowed to even come near our bubble, but we should be careful about letting them touch, because that would probably change the nature of our original bubble! Whew! That's tedious and tiring! And yet the bubble pops anyway - as it always does.
But what enjoyment is there in defending our bubble? If we are constantly on the lookout for threats, then we are looking at everything around the bubble, but not at the bubble itself. So why even have a bubble at all, if we can't observe it and enjoy it? And what are we really defending, if it is going to pop, no matter what? The key is to look at the bubble for what it is - so fragile and amazing! And if we want to go further, then we can look at the other bubbles and see that they are equally amazing! Further still, and we realize that lots of new bubbles can be created while the others are popping. We can fill the sky with them! We can look at the different types, the different colors, the swirls, the reflections - and then we understand that limiting the experience to just one bubble would be quite disappointing in comparison. I have never seen someone blow just one bubble and then stop.
Like Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." That's not promoting trickle-down self interest, or diluted altruism, but rather compassion for all - including self, and God. Too bad Ayn Rand never made it that far in her vision.